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An unfortunate death

January 31, 2011 12 comments

The Ladies from Saint-Petersburg, by Nina Berberova. (76 pages) I have read the French translation by Cécile Térouanne.

  Those who follow this blog know that I’ve decided to join Sarah’s challenge entitled “Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge”. The 10th book of the challenge must be a friend’s choice and that’s how Guy from His Futile Preoccupation ended up picking The Ladies of Saint-Petersburg for me.

Summer 1917, the Russian Revolution has begun. Barbara Ivanovna and her daughter Marguerite arrive at doctor Byrdine’s guest-house. The house is located at twelve versts form the nearest train station. They are exhausted. They left St Petersburg behind. The country is disorganized, the trip lasted two days instead of a six-hours journey by train. We don’t know why they come here, but we guess they are fleeing from a city devastated by fights.

Upon the night of their arrival, Barbara Ivanovna dies from a stroke. The heat is intense. The village is far away. It is impossible to send the corpse back to St Petersburg for its burial. The doctor’s wife suggests to bury Barbara Ivanovna in their garden. We then follow the preparations for the funeral.

Marguerite is about 20, I think, though her age is never mentioned. Despite the horror of the situation, her instinct is to live. She is all alone, her parents being both dead now and among strangers. She needs to take practical decisions for the funeral. She is in pain. But her life force is strong enough for her to notice the beauty of the garden, to think about marriage. Her mother is dying and she thinks:

Il ne lui restait plus qu’une chose à faire : épouser, à n’importe quel prix, Léonide Léodinovitch, autrement, elle était perdue. There was only one thing to do now: to marry Leonid Leodonovich at any cost, otherwise, she was lost.

She could sound vapid and selfish but she isn’t. She knows her feelings are improper but youth is stronger than good manners. 

Marguerite ne quittait pas Byrdine : ainsi elle ne sortit pas dans le jardin, touffu et parfumé où elle craignait de succomber à des tentations, une douceur et un laisser-aller inopportun qui déjà la gagnaient à travers les fenêtres et les portes de la maison. Le sentiment de l’été et de la liberté lui faisait tourner la tête. Marguerite never left Byrdine. She didn’t go out in the thick and fragrant garden. She was afraid to succumb to a sweetness and an improper abandon that already reached out to her through the windows and the doors of the house. The feeling of summer and of freedom made her dizzy.

When Nina Berberova relates Barbara Ivanovna’s death and its consequences, she also depicts 1917. People on the roads running away from cities, peasants and craftsmen taking advantage of the situation. Social links are falling to pieces. She shows the poverty is the countries, the children running after the doctor’s carriage and begging for food and their bad health. In a few words, she describes how people rapidly lose any fake politeness or friendliness when living through hard times. The reader first perceives the changing of regime through tiny details, such as St Petersburg suddenly being called Petrograd. The last chapter is quite significant on that part, but I won’t tell more here.

Nina Berberova’s style seems simple, made of short sentences anddialogues but she has an original way to assemble words, like in her “Byrdine glanced at her lazily and aggressively”. How can someone be lazy and aggressive at the same time? Or here is Marguerite’s night after her mother passed away: “Without moving or crying, she laid still until morning, listening to birds, then servants, then the ladies and gentlemen wake up.” We can well imagine her sleepless night.

I really enjoyed reading this novella and its combination of a pleasant style,  historical background and personal story. So thanks Guy, you made a good choice.

 PS : I did the translations. I did my best.

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